Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Voice and False Consciousness

I've been reading about "voice" lately for the section in my book on "Adaptive Preference and False Consciousness." This gist it is that "we" don't hear what the Oppressed have to say because we don't hear their voice or, I suppose more colloquially, understand their language. Moreover, when token members of oppressed groups gain entree to knowledge and power elites they forget their native language since the price of admission is enculturation. African-Americans who have become "white," women who have become "honorary men," and "westernized" indigenous people identify with their oppressors and no longer speak with the voice of their cultures.

This seems to me wrong on three counts

(1) There is a difference between having a voice and having a soapbox. Oppressed people were always capable of articulating their concerns but no one paid any attention. It is uncontroversial that access to political process, to the media, to all the mechanisms for voicing ones concerns and exercising power ought to be more widely available--it's important that priviledged people hear what less priviledged people have to say. But it's quite another thing to suggest that we aren't "really" hearing if we fail to see the wisdom of what they have to say or if, having heard, we conclude that they are naive or wrong-headed.

(2) Concern to hear the authentic voice of the oppressed is patronizing: it fails to distinguish between those who have something to say and those who don't, and systematically writes off the smartest, most educated and most articulate members of traditionally disadvantaged groups as inauthentic.

Educated, articulate members of disadvantaged groups don't need help in finding their "voice"--they need soapboxes, access to media and publicity. Uneducated, inarticulate members of disadvantaged groups don't have a distinctive "voice" that needs to be made audible--they have nothing of interest to say--and attempts to cultivate their voice or render them articulate are comparable to programs that purported to articulate the voices of autistic children through "assisted communication."

(3) Well-meaning attempts to articulate the "authentic" voice of the oppressed ghettoize people and lock them out of the dominent culture. It may be better to be "affirmed" and admired for one's cultural peculiarities then despised or ignored, but it is better still to have the option of shedding one's culture and gaining admission to dominent culture.

Right now USD, like a great many colleges and universities, has developed a "gender studies" program which, some hope, will grow into a major. Women, de facto the clientele for such programs, may gain some benefit through being "affirmed" in such programs, but the overall costs far outweigh any benefits. Gender studies majors are locked into an occupational ghetto. Women should be steered into engineering and the sciences, and given the wherewithall to succeed. "Cultural" studies, bilingual education and "self-esteem" programs for students in the public schools do nothing for students. The assumption behind all the rhetoric is that most are write-offs who cannot make it in the dominant culture, cannot assimilate.

At bottom there is an empirical question: what do members of "oppressed" groups want? Of course, like members of priviledged groups, they want a variety of different things. But the suggestion that, ceteris paribus, all or most would prefer to retain their native cultural peculiarities and only grudgingly assimilate as a price to be paid for priviledge is speculative.

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